China and defectorsWe welcome China’s decision to send four North Korean defectors, who have been taking refuge in South Korea’s Embassy in Beijing for more than 30 months, to South Korea. Beijing reportedly plans to repatriate seven other defectors hiding in our consulates in two other Chinese cities. The latest development leads to hopes that the utterly inhumane situation of North Korean defectors living a de facto prison life in our consulates will finally come to an end. We look forward to more forward-looking and humane measures from Beijing.
The defector issue became a political hot potato for Beijing after the number of North Koreans who cross the border increased sharply due to the deterioration of their economy and continued human rights abuses on an almost unimaginable scale. China’s dilemma is understandable given its awareness that if it accepts all defectors, it could trigger a massive influx of North Koreans to China, which could touch off a collapse of the Pyongyang regime, its close ally.
But China responded to the defector issue as sternly as imaginable. It not only reinforced security to prevent the defectors’ getting into foreign diplomatic missions. Once they got in, it didn’t allow them to leave. Beijing also started sending defectors in three northeastern provinces of China back to North Korea after arresting them in a joint operation with Pyongyang. As a result, China had to bear international criticism for such inhumane treatment in violation of the UN Convention on Refugees.
China’s latest decision, however, can hardly be considered a fundamental change in its approach to defectors. As defectors are guaranteed to increase, our government must beef up efforts to persuade Beijing to observe international norms on the issue with the support of the international community. Of course, it is inevitable for our government to conduct “quiet diplomacy” sometimes. But urging China to change its course on the issue is a separate matter.
Beijing also needs to press Pyongyang to halt its merciless clampdown on human rights. It is against humanity to forcibly repatriate North Korean defectors when most of them will face cruel punishment, including execution, when they are returned to their country. China should prepare a new procedure on par with international standards which carefully takes into account why these people choose to escape their motherland in the first place. China should not repatriate them if they fled their country for political reasons or if they are certain to suffer merciless punishment back home.